by Sean Tyler @seantyleruk
It’s probably not that surprising that British athletes carving out a solid career in the NFL have been few and far between. Obviously, there have been a few: London-born running back Jay Ajayi played for the Dolphins before winning Super Bowl LII with the Eagles, while Osi Umenyiora, now a pundit on The NFL Show, is another Londoner with a ring, thanks to the Giants’ surprise win over the Patriots a decade earlier. Before him, Hertfordshire’s finest, Mick Luckhurst, played his entire career as a kicker with the Falcons before becoming the face of Channel 4’s NFL coverage in the Eighties.
But what about now? Who are the guys born or bred on this side of the pond that we should be rooting for in 2020? Here’s the low-down…
THE EIGHT-YEAR PRO
Jack Crawford – Defensive Tackle, Tennessee Titans
You gotta love Jack. Raised in Kilburn, the early claim for this 6’5”, 20-stone bald guy (due to alopecia) was being at school with Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. He then moved to the States as a teenager with dreams of becoming an NBA star but due to international transfer rules, that didn’t pan out. Undaunted, he took up football in high school and after four years at Penn State, was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Not a bad plan B…
Crawford featured as a backup in his rookie season and appeared in 15 games the following year before being waived. He then enjoyed three-year spells with the Cowboys (you may have seen him at Wembley against the Jaguars in 2015) and the Falcons. Arguably not a starting-calibre lineman, Crawford, who has played at both defensive end and defensive tackle, has registered 136 tackles and 16 sacks to date.
A couple of months ago, Crawford signed a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans. It’s hard to say how it’ll pan out for Jack as he enters his ninth year in the league, but he’s certainly able to fill in should Mike Vrabel need him to. With Austin Johnson signing with the Giants and five-time Pro-Bowler Jurrell Casey packing himself off to Denver during the off-season, there may even be a decent chance we might see him as a starting DT in 2020…
THE WORK IN PROGRESS
Jermaine Eluemunor – Offensive Guard, New England Patriots
Now 25, Eluemunor was born in Chalk Farm, London, to a Nigerian/English family and grew up in Camden. He played rugby and cricket as a youngster – preferring the former – but got into football because of the other football, and in particular, his beloved Arsenal (check out @TheMainShow_ on Twitter).
The story goes that in 2007, he was skipping through the channels looking for the Arsenal match when he stumbled on the NFL International Series game between the Giants and Dolphins at Wembley. His interest piqued, he started down a path that would lead him to play high school football in New Jersey before attending Texas A&M. He and his father briefly came back to England but Eluemunor was allowed to return Stateside, as long as he graduated and put everything into pursuing a career in football.
On the eve of the 2017 Draft, in which he was picked by the Ravens in the fifth round, Jermaine told The Independent “Wherever I get picked, I’m gonna work as hard as I’ve ever worked to make this happen and my dream come true. This is just the start.”
And that he did. Eluemunor made the Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA) All-Rookie Team in his first year, and played 27 regular-season games and one postseason contest in Baltimore before being traded to the Patriots. The 335-pound offensive lineman played 10 times in New England last year and has been retained for the 2020 campaign. Sitting behind left guard Joe Thuney in the depth charts, he isn’t a starter but provides depth in the middle of the line and we should see him get a decent number of snaps this season.
THE INTERNATIONAL PATHWAY PROSPECT
Efe Obada – Defensive End, Carolina Panthers
Obada had a tough start in life. Born in Nigeria before moving to the Netherlands, Obada and his sister got moved to London, where they slept rough and ended up in foster care. He fell into football when he saw how a college friend transformed himself playing for the London Warriors.
Looking for some cameraderie, Obada joined him and was taken under the wing of Aden Durde, who told his Dallas Cowboys contacts about Efe. Obada had only played five games for the Warriors when he was offered the chance to work out for Dallas, ahead of their Wembley game against the Jaguars. Despite his lack of experience, Efe was signed as an undrafted free agent a year later. It didn’t work out, nor did it with the Chiefs and Falcons, so his last hope was the NFL’s inaugural International Player Pathway Program, which placed him with the Panthers’ practice squad.
The following year, Obada become the first player from the program to make a 53-man roster, and played his first regular season game in Week 3 against the Bengals, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance. Last October, Obada posted a career-best 24 tackles and played in all 16 of Carolina’s games, including the Buccaneers game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Obada was named an honorary team captain for the 37-26 victory that day, a fitting tribute in front of a ‘home’ London crowd.
Having signed a one-year contract extension in January 2020, Obada is heading into his third season with the Panthers. He’s shown promise so far but has yet to start in any of his 26 appearances to date and hasn’t recorded any sacks. By his own admission, he hasn’t established himself yet and, with a new HC Matt Rhule – let alone 2020 NFL Draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos jumping the queue at DE – he has his work cut out this season. It could be the most important of Obada’s career; he’s set to enter free agency in 2021 so let’s hope he can do enough to earn a longer contract.
THE FIRST-YEAR SUCCESS STORY
Jamie Gillan – Punter, Cleveland Browns
Growing up in Inverness, Scotland, Jamie’s all-consuming passion for rugby took him to Merchiston Castle, a boarding school in Edinburgh with a reputation for fast-tracking players into the Scottish national squad. As a promising fly-half, he developed a talent for kicking – one that would eventually stand him in good stead.
When his RAF dad was posted to Maryland, the Gillan family, including a 16-year-old Jamie, moved too. He had never watched football and initially, had no intention of playing it, but he asked to join the high school team, purely to keep fit during the rugby off-season. With a few tweaks to his technique, Gillan soon became an accomplished kicker and offers began to trickle in.
“All my mates were telling me you could get scholarships for kicking a ball and I didn’t believe them at first,” he told the BBC sport website last year, “but I thought I’d give it a try after I saw the guy missing field goals.”
Well, the punt – if you’ll excuse the pun – was worth it. A year ago, the undrafted rookie was brought in by the Cleveland Browns as a back-up to Britton Colquitt. And whaddya know, after some impressive pre-season turnouts – including a 74-yard punt and some robust, rugby-style tackles on punt returners – he took the starting job from the 10-year veteran.
Known as “The Scottish Hammer” for his solid physique, the long-haired Scotsman soon got the fans and the pundits onside. Gillan was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in September, and his debut campaign – 63 punts for 2913 yards, including a 71-yard season’s best – earned him a place on the PFWA All-Rookie team.
As he enters his second season, the sky’s the limit for Jamie. He’s been working out and bulking up even more so he should be raring to go by the time the new season starts.
THE INJURED VETERAN
Graham Gano – Kicker, Carolina Panthers
I have to hold my hand up to this one: before researching this article, I had no idea that Gano was born in Arbroath, Scotland. But his dad, a US Navy man, was stationed there when Graham was born.
Apparently, young Graham was a decent goalkeeper, and supported Bayern Munich and Scotland. Prior to attending high school in Florida, he was approached by a scout at the end of a summer tournament in which he’d excelled but he rejected the chance to move back to the UK… and join a little outfit called Manchester United.
Gano broke all sorts of Florida State records in his senior year, prompting a pick-up as an undrafted free agent in 2009 by the Ravens (they do like a Brit!). Alas, he was soon released and flirted with the inaugural United Football League, scoring the Las Vegas Locomotives’ championship-winning kick and leading the league in scoring and field goals.
Finally breaking into the NFL in 2009, Gano experienced an up-and-down three years at the Washington Redskins, where he earned a reputation for nailing game-winning field goals in overtime, yet had to compete for his job more than once.
Since 2012, Graham has been a Panther. In his time, he hit the upright in Super Bowl L in the loss to the Broncos, and was named to a Pro Bowl in 2017, having made 96.7% of his FG attempts that year. Having sealed yet another OT win, against the Giants, in early October 2018 with a career-best 63-yard kick, he was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury and missed the entire 2019 campaign, prompting the 32-year-old to have surgery.
Speaking to Panthers.com last August, he said “Whatever my future holds, I’m excited about it. I’m always going to keep a positive attitude, no matter what’s going on.” Gano’s a decent kicker – he only missed three FG attempts during 2017 and 2018 – so if he can battle back and compete for his old job again, there’s a chance he’ll be a rock-solid leg again in 2020.
THE PRACTICE SQUAD HOPEFUL
Christian Wade – Running Back, Buffalo Bills
Christian Wade is currently on the Buffalo Bills practice squad, with hopes of another year of development ahead of him, but he’s already had an impressive career in rugby.
The lad from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, played for Wasps since his school days and went on to score 82 tries for them, which puts him fourth on the Premiership’s all-time list. He also represented England at all levels (alas, only the one national appearance though), and was also called up to the British and Irish Lions squad.
Frustrated with the lack of England opportunities, he decided to switch codes, clubs and countries and try out as an NFL running back, despite having zero experience. He came through the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, and spent last season in upstate New York on the Bills’ practice squad. Almost immediately, he made headlines, with a 65-yard TD run with his first-ever touch in a preseason game against the Colts, and a 48-yard run with his first catch.
Despite his undoubted speed and athletic ability, Wade failed to make the active roster last year and is yet to appear in a regular-season game. But he’s undaunted, telling The Telegraph “It has been a success to come across, learn the game, participate in practice at full speed and to play in preseason. I just want to keep improving. I’m going to give it the same energy as I did this year and see where that gets me.”
THE 2020 ROOKIE
Julian Okwara – Defensive End, Detroit Lions
Okwara was born in London, when his mother was visiting family, but grew up near Lagos in Nigeria. He moved to North Carolina aged eight and eventually took up football, following his older brother Romeo through Ardrey Kell High School and Notre Dame on his way to the NFL. Romeo (also a defensive end) signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and was claimed off waivers by the Lions in 2018.
Julian was a standout at Notre Dame, making 19.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks over his last two seasons. And now, he finally catches up with Romeo, having been selected by Detroit in the third round of the 2020 Draft. According to Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus, Okwara could prove to be the steal of this year’s class, after a broken leg toward the end of last season impacted his Combine and quelled any first-round chatter.
Helping to address one of the Lions’ biggest weaknesses last year, their pass rush (tied for second-last with just 28 sacks), Okwara – also considered an outside linebacker – may end up competing with Trey Flowers and Austin Bryant, as well as his big brother, for starting snaps.
Matt Patricia is getting a versatile player who can drop back into coverage or rush the passer. On signing with the Lions, he told Detroit Free Press reporters “They’re getting a pass rusher, great defensive end, someone who wreaks havoc in the backfield.” So look out for Okwara to come out from his brother’s shadow and make a name for himself in the NFC North next season.
THE FREE AGENT
Josh Mauro – Defensive End (No current team)
Mauro began his journey to the NFL in that hotbed of American football, St Albans, but started to play football at Stanford after he moved to the US.
The lad impressed the Steelers enough for them to sign him up as an undrafted free agent but he was released, kickstarting a tour of the league in subsequent seasons that took in the Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants (where he got caught up in some controversy over the use of a banned substance) and, finally, Los Angeles. With his one-year deal with the Raiders now at an end, the 6’6”, 290-pound run stuffer is currently looking for his next landing spot.
He’s made 30 starts in five seasons but now aged 28, the clock is ticking and I’m not sure we’ll see him take the field in the season ahead. Fingers crossed.